J-Schools Get Schooled in 2010

And just like that I learned my alma mater was about to become a thing of the past. While some alumni might greet the news with a sad nostalgia, they shouldn't. This is a good thing.

On Wednesday, the University of Colorado announced plans to shutter its School of Journalism and Mass Communication. As a graduate of the school's broadcast program, I was surprised after following university newsletters indicating that applications were up and that students were thriving.

Still, the fact of the matter is that most journalism schools, including CU's, probably never should have existed. At least not as they have operated over the last few decades.

Most aspiring young journalists dream of becoming the next Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter or starring on the evening news. Unfortunately, they are poorly served in a college journalism environment. While programs generally proclaim a commitment to teaching fundamental industry-specific skills, they fail to provide graduates even a basic skill set essential to becoming a great writer. More problematic, too many professors and administrators choose to indoctrinate students in a polemic of political correctness, instilling a religious devotion to diversity and a simplistic view of government accountability--all at the expense of taking time to teach students to read, write, or challenge false assumptions that too often make it into today's media as fact. Of course, these problems are all before getting to the debate over how to aid students in finding jobs in a quickly transforming media job market.

At risk of discrediting my own diploma, journalism training isn't worthy of an undergraduate diploma. Not because journalism isn't important or that good journalists aren't essential to a free society. Rather, journalism isn't rocket science. You've got it or you don't, and when it comes to becoming a great reporter, students should spend their college years specializing in essential academic areas that will enable them to become experts on history, politics, culture, and economics. Or at minimum, they should focus on developing or adopting innovative approaches to distributing information through technology.

It's not that CU didn't try. Its student newspaper was the first in the nation to go online. Advisors, including the tirelessly devoted Alan Kirkpatrick, did everything they could to help find students jobs. I also admired the handful of professors who sprung current events pop quizzes on us with glee. But it wasn't enough to encourage students to read the news on a daily basis when too many couldn't dissect news reports with a critical eye. Not once in my entire time at CU was I ever forced, taught, or encouraged to study methods key to critically evaluating government statistics, polling methodology, or interest group reports.

Also troubling, I can only recall one course where the professor took the time to objectively tear apart our writing and grammar mistakes with the degree of disgust they often deserved. Much more common were classroom lectures focusing on oppression, sexism, and racism. One professor devoted multiple lectures to her homegrown thesis that the National Enquirer was racist and sexist. When I chimed in to ask why, her response was unapologetic. The only time minorities made it on the publication's sensationalized covers was when they committed crimes or became Hollywood celebrities. As compared to white guys who make it on the cover?

Other lectures treated us as sociology majors, obsessing about the role of commercials and the impact of advertising on children. It was also hard to take seriously the multiple professors who had never even spent a minute working in a real newsroom.

Early on, I realized an academic approach wasn't going to cut it. So I turned to internship and mentorship programs offering real world journalistic boot camps that weeded out lazy writers and made good ones that much stronger. Through a fellowship at the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, I worked at CNN researching economic data for business segments. Another program, organized through the Fund For American Studies at Georgetown, provided an internship at National Journal, where I learned to write on deadlines that were often quoted in minutes, not hours or days.

The most valuable, and ultimately, most difficult part of my journalism education came just after graduation, when I discovered that my job prospects were largely limited to reporting positions in the rural Midwest where the average salary was under $10 an hour. Realizing I couldn't survive on dreams alone, I quickly jumped ship, going to work as a press secretary in Washington, D.C., pursuing graduate and law degrees at night and on weekends.

I still proudly though humbly consider myself a journalist today. While I long for the fantasy of working in a traditional newsroom full time, I've managed to piece together several writing gigs as a complement to my law practice and political consulting work. It's what you've got to do in today's environment. Sadly, it's a model CU never mastered or articulated to its students.

University leaders should be applauded for having the courage to see the writing on the wall, as they now commit to investigating opportunities to incorporate traditional journalism instruction into other academic departments.

Over the years, I've tried to support CU in my own little way, hiring and mentoring several young journalism school graduates for various client projects, including opinion writing, editing political copy, and investigative research. With few exceptions, each of these individuals had to be taught to write, to think more critically, and to say goodbye to the traditional model of journalism.

It has been an exhausting process, through which I spent hours upon hours correcting basic punctuation mistakes, questioning lazy regurgitation of government-compiled economic and census data, and explaining differences between political and economic systems. Sadly, I'd have to think twice before hiring another j-school graduate again. Perhaps I sound bitter and maybe I am. You should be too. Today's journalism students are rarely challenged, just one small segment of a larger society that has fallen victim to spin and personality. Our society suffers as a result.

While many analysts will decry the demise of journalism programs, including CU's, as the death of the Fourth Estate or ignorantly claim it's all a result of inadequate funding. In truth, America's post-journalism school world could hold government more accountable than the model it is replacing. At minimum, and with the aid of technology, it will transcribe the history of our local communities with more tenacity, authenticity, and transparency than ever before.

Students need jobs. With student debt at record levels, universities should get rid of fluffy academic departments, including j-schools, and get back to teaching basics. After all, any 16-year-old with a used copy of Final Cut Pro, Wi-Fi access, and a hand-me-down camera can call himself a reporter.

CU should teach its students how to think, analyze and write. Cutting the j-school is a good first step, and if it cares about churning out great reporters, it should direct whatever funding remains to aggressively pursuing partnerships with innovative organizations like WCPJ and TFAS who have proven that in the span of a few short months, they can churn out terrific reporters.

I left Boulder nine years ago. Today, my resume shows the challenges and opportunities of journalism in the 21st Century. In addition to being a reporter and press secretary, I've also worked as a political strategist, editorial columnist, public policy analyst, and most recently, attorney. It has been a wild ride I wouldn't trade for anything, most recently culminating in the writing opportunity of a lifetime. Through a Phillips Foundation fellowship, I'm completing a book I've tentatively titled Victim Nation. Ironically enough, it focuses largely on the multitude of ways in which today's universities are out of touch with basic market realities and needs. Maybe I'll reference CU as an institution doing things right.

Ideally, the closure of CU's journalism school will encourage other universities to reconsider their teaching priorities, to cut waste, and eliminate out-dated programs wherever possible. Tomorrow's reporters, bloggers, and citizen watchdogs will determine whether I'm right. But even if I'm wrong, one thing is for sure. This will be a narrative told without its authors languishing unnecessarily in lecture halls.